Justice Dept. defends campus free speech following Jones College lawsuit

Gavel on sounding block
Gavel on sounding block(Source: Gray News)
Updated: Dec. 9, 2019 at 4:38 PM CST
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JONES COUNTY, Miss. (WDAM) - The U.S. Justice Department filed a Statement of Interest Monday supporting free speech on college campuses following a federal lawsuit in Mississippi.

The lawsuit was filed by a former Jones College student, J. Michael Brown, and the campus group Young Americans for Liberty regarding the college’s policies requiring campus administrators to approve all “meetings or gatherings.”

Brown claims officials at Jones College, formerly Jones County Community College, called campus police on him when he tried to engage with fellow students on campus about free speech and civil liberties, according a Justice Department news release.

The Justice Department said in the statement that public colleges cannot trample on students’ First Amendment rights to free speech.

“The United States of America is not a police state,” said Assistant Attorney General Eric Dreiband for the Civil Rights Division. “Repressive speech codes are the indecent hallmark of despotic, totalitarian regimes. They have absolutely no place in our country, and the First Amendment outlaws all tyrannical policies, practices, and acts that abridge the freedom of speech.”

The Jones College student handbook requires all students to seek approval for meetings and gatherings at least 72 hours in advance, with no exceptions, regardless of event size. Violating the policy is grounds for discipline, including expulsion.

“Unconstitutional restrictions on our first freedoms to speak and assemble directly threaten our liberty as Americans,” said U.S. Attorney Mike Hurst for the Southern District of Mississippi. “While some may disagree with the content of one’s speech, we should all be fighting for everyone’s Constitutional right to speak. I pray JCJC will do the right thing, change its policies to comply with the U.S. Constitution, and encourage its students to speak and assemble throughout our free state.”

In the lawsuit, Brown alleged that JC officials twice called police on him when he and one or two other students spoke on the college’s open central quadrangle about free speech, civil liberties and marijuana legalization. Brown said he was brought to the campus police chief’s office where he was intimidated by the chief and other officials.

“This is yet another concerning example of students encountering limits on what, when, where, and how they learn,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. “This is happening far too often on our nation’s campuses. This Administration won’t let students be silenced. We stand with their right to speak and with their right to learn truth through the free exchange of ideas—particularly those with which they might disagree.”

Jones College has filed a motion for the complaint to be dismissed.

The Justice Department said that Jones College’s free speech policies do not meet the standards of the First Amendment because the policies operate as prior restraint on all student speech and they grant school officials the power to determine which students may speak and about what they may speak.

“No matter the outcome of its pending motion to dismiss, JCJC would be wise to revisit and revise its speech policies at the earliest possible opportunity. The Constitution demands nothing less,” the statement reads.

WDAM reached out to Jones College for a comment on the Justice Department’s Statement of Interest, and officials released the following statement:

“Due to the timing of our notification on the Statement of Interest, Jones does not have a statement at this time. As soon as we have a statement prepared, we will share it with any media at their request.”

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